Families are under an extraordinary amount of stress right now, as the trials of 2020 aren’t just overflowing into 2021, they’re also seeping into our children’s lives in unimaginable, unprecedented ways.
Childhood anxiety and depression during COVID is very real.
From remote learning and the constant disruptions of the school year to the very fear of COVID itself sneaking into their homes, children — toddlers and college kids alike — are bound to feel more and more stress as the pandemic lingers on.
To be clear, kids are resilient, and they’ve proved their adaptability in many ways since last March — from switching to online learning to getting used to wearing masks. But kids, much like adults, are not immune to the challenges and scary feelings that come with the pandemic. In fact, they hear and see more than we know, and feel things more deeply than we realize.
As the pandemic drags on and we still can’t provide them with the routine and predictability they thrive on, our children — many of whom don’t have the life experience to know that “this too shall pass” — are starting to feel more and more stressed, sad, worried — or worse, panicked, isolated, and hopeless.
If you’re noticing this in your child(ren), you’re not alone. Just reading the news headlines about the child-suicides in Las Vegas gave me tremendous pause.
Perhaps you have a kiddo who has always struggled with anxiety and/or depression (or other mental health concerns) and the pandemic is exacerbating his or her symptoms, or maybe you have a child who has never struggled before, but is suddenly showing signs of sadness or distress.
Either way, we’re here to help.
Up until Thanksgiving, our 8-year-old daughter seemed to handle the many changes that came along with the pandemic with so much resilience and flexibility. When she started at a new school in the fall, she wore her mask without complaints, and she even managed to make friends despite all the social distancing and other pandemic measures. But right around Thanksgiving, our school shifted back to remote learning due to the high COVID case count in our community.
Though she first seemed to manage her daily zoom class schedule well and independently, I noticed a discernible change as the weeks dragged on. Her normally boisterous energy levels dropped significantly, until I could hardly recognize our normally happy, sociable, easygoing daughter. Some days, she felt too tired to get from her bed to her desk, and she even refused to leave the house to go play.
I was worried, but I chalked it up to the difficulty of remote learning, and also staring at a screen for 7 hours a day. When our school announced we’d be heading back into the classroom in January, we were all so excited! I figured being in class and around peers, as opposed to on a screen, would cheer her up.
But after one day back in class, she came home from school early with a “tummy ache,” which turned out to be anxiety from her overwhelming feelings of worry, grief and sadness. She burst into tears and finally let it out to me: she missed her old school, her old friends… her old life. Too much had changed, and she just wanted things to go back to normal. She told me that it’s like her brain has all these blue dots on it, and the dots are all her worries and sad feelings, and she doesn’t know how to make them go away.
Hearing these words from my daughter broke my heart — and felt all too familiar. I too struggle with anxiety, and I too have a lot of blue dots floating in my brain. I too miss my old life. So I can relate more than she knows, besides feeling her sadness and loss so very deeply.
As I thought a bit more about what she told me, I realized that her old school represents her pre-pandemic life. Up until last March, when the world shut down, she was a normal kid who could intermingle with her entire class, eat in the lunchroom with friends, play freely on the playground with pals at recess, go on field trips, attend school assemblies, and so on. Her new school, which she started in the midst of the pandemic, is a clear representation of COVID-life: where she wears a mask, has her temperature checked every day, eats lunch at her desk (alone), and so many other restrictions that have taken all the fun out of her daily life.
As I began thinking about how to address this properly and work through these feelings with my own daughter, I realized that this is a huge problem for families everywhere. Kids all over are struggling with this strange, new and restrictive life that’s also filled with new worries. Their little minds and bodies may be overrun by so many big feelings that they don’t know how to process, express or solve.
I know my family isn’t alone in this struggle; my hope with this article is to help you and your child breathe a little easier today.
A Child’s Pandemic Experience
As we’ve discussed, no matter how old your children are right now, just like you, they too may be experiencing the pangs of loss of their old life.
As a result of school closures, remote learning, and physical distancing, our children are missing so many of their regular, routinized opportunities for social development and growth.
Devoid of playdates, family visits, and in-person school, preschool and elementary school-aged children are less able to practice important, developmentally-appropriate skills like sharing, taking turns, working through differences with peers, etc.; and older kids who thrive off their social interactions are feeling increasingly lonely and isolated, which was starting to become a huge problem for teens even before this pandemic.
Add to all this the lack of time with extended family and support systems (grandparents, cousins, etc.), the stress of absorbing caregivers’ feelings about the pandemic, and you’ve got yourself the perfect recipe for our children to experience actual trauma (of course, trauma is on a spectrum, and some children’s traumas will be more severe than others. Some kids may have lost a loved one to COVID or have a parent who’s lost a job; others are experiencing food or housing insecurity or are in abusive or otherwise unhealthy homes, etc.).
All this said, there are things we can do — both for ourselves and our children — to prevent long-lasting anxiety, depression and overarching negative feelings due to the pandemic.
First, let’s discuss the signs and symptoms you should look for to determine if your child might be struggling with mental health concerns because of the pandemic (or just in general).
Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety and Depression in Children by Age — Overview
Though your younger kiddos may not be truly aware of the pandemic and what’s going on in the world, they could still be displaying signs of anxiety due to changes in routine, absorbing caregivers’ stress and anxiety, and/or the overall mood in the household.
For example, my friend’s kids overheard her talking on the phone to a friend whose dad had just died of COVID. They later asked her questions about death, who was about to die, when will they die, and so on. These things are hard to hide from our kids — they hear and absorb so much more than we think!
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Anxiety Symptoms in Toddlers
- Changes in eating, sleeping and “normal” (for your child) behavioral patterns;
- Increased fussiness;
- More difficult to console;
- Separation anxiety when caregivers leave the house or when being dropped off at daycare, preschool, etc.;
- Potty accidents (for those who are potty trained);
- More aggressive behavior than usual.
Anxiety Symptoms in School-aged Children
- Changes in social behavior — i.e. kids who have always enjoyed being social no longer wanting to see friends or leave the house;
- Children not wanting to come out of their rooms or engage with caregivers, siblings, etc.;
- Excess worrying;
- Feeling sad, irritable, helpless or hopeless;
- Changes in energy level — suddenly sluggish, tired all the time, low energy;
- Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities;
- Loss of interest in school and schoolwork;
- Falling behind in school;
- Hard time falling or staying asleep;
- Unexplained tummy aches, headaches, or other physical problems;
- Feelings of worthlessness;
- Changes in appetite.
For a more extensive list of the signs of depression in children, take a look at The Signs of Depression During the Pandemic from the Child Mind Institute.
According to Child Mind Institute, if any of these symptoms persist for more than two weeks, they definitely need to be addressed (suggestions on ways to do this below). However, if the symptoms are more fleeting in nature — present for a day or two, say, and then gone — it may be less of a concern, and more momentary or situational.
Here’s a good rule of thumb, according to Child Mind Institute and clinical psychologist Dr. Mark Reinecke, PhD: “If you see them, take note. If they last, take action.”
Ways to Help
If you’ve determined that your child is struggling with anxiety, depression, or other mental health concerns, what should you do?
First of all, take a deep breath. Yes, you. If your child is struggling, chances are pretty high that you are too.
Second, you can feel reassured by the fact that, according to this article in USA Today, “…unless a child is experiencing toxic stress [toxic stress, which can be experienced at any time, not just during the pandemic, is defined as “…severe in its strength and chronic in its duration and happens without a buffering relationship…”], they probably will recover well and may even build resiliency that will serve them in the long run.”
The simple act of reading this article means that you care and you likely serve as that “buffering relationship,” which is so imperative to your child’s mental health and wellbeing.
Here are several other specific ways you can support your child:
Keep Things Consistent
- Maintain household consistency, routines and familiarity as much as possible. There is so much uncertainty in the world right now, but keeping things as predictable and consistent as possible at home will go a long way in creating a sense of safety and normalcy for your child. For example, keep a morning routine, where everyone wakes up, eats breakfast, brushes their teeth, gets dressed, etc. — even if you have nothing to get dressed for.
- Set a time and create a safe space at home for you and your child to check in with each other regularly (daily, if possible) — without distractions (phones, email, siblings, etc.). Just that 1:1 time will help your child know she is supported, cared for and loved — this alone will help (this is also part of creating and strengthening that protective “buffering relationship” mentioned above). These check-ins can be as long or short as your child needs them to be — even a quick 3-minute conversation is better than nothing.
Be a Sounding Board
- Listen without judgement and take your child’s feelings seriously.
- Validate your child’s feelings without trying to “fix” their problems for them.
- Similarly, resist the urge to say “it’s OK.” It sounds good, yes, but in reality, things don’t feel OK for your child right now. Saying “it’s OK” may sound like you’re diminishing your child’s feelings and experience. Instead, you can offer a warm hug, an empathetic nod and something along the lines of, “I hear what you’re saying. I know what you’re going through is really hard. I’m always here for you. I love you.”
Physical Activity and Fun
- Encourage your child to stay physically active, even if s/he doesn’t feel like it. If your child plays soccer, try your best to keep her going to practices and games (if they’re still happening due to the pandemic). Or just take your child outside to kick the ball around. If they enjoy a good dance party, lower the lights, blast the music, and get grooving together!
- Go outside at any opportunity you can. Yes, you can (and should) still stay active outside on the coldest of days.
- Don’t forget to HAVE FUN! Sometimes, our mood is so serious and we totally forget to loosen up a bit. Having fun together as a family does wonders for everyone’s moods. Whether it’s the aforementioned dance party, taking the afternoon to go sledding and drink hot chocolate or playing a fun game together like Pictionary or charades, making time for silliness and fun will create warm, positive feelings and memories, which we all need right about now.
Mindfulness and Gratitude
- Practicing mindfulness can help, and here are some great ways to implement that into your children’s routine. In addition, there are so many great apps out there, like Calm and Headspace, that can help kids learn how to breathe deeply, stay in the moment, and accept and tolerate feelings of uncertainty.
- Adopt an attitude of gratitude. One idea is at the beginning or end of each day, have your family go around and name 3 things they feel grateful for. Research shows that focusing on what we’re grateful for, rather than what we’re unhappy about, can actually help improve our mood and overall health and wellbeing.
Understanding and Combating Worry
- Help your children understand how worrying works. Lynn Lyons, LICSW offers really useful tips (and tons of other things related to children and anxiety) on her website and in her podcast, Flusterclux. When kids understand why their symptoms are occurring (i.e. tummy aches, headaches, low energy, etc.), they tend to feel less anxious about them and more powerful and in control of their bodies.
- Have your children name their worry or depression… and then yell at it whenever it shows up. My daughter’s worry is called “Mr. Mean Pants,” and she has my full permission to yell and scream at him whenever he appears. Doing this externalizes the feelings of worry and depression — they are NOT a part of your children — and helps kids understand that THEY are the bosses of their brains and bodies… not their worries, intrusive thoughts, and/or depression.
- Help your kids challenge their negative or self-destructive thoughts. For some amazing tips on how to do this, check out Social Emotional Workshop and Mindful Little Minds.
Be a Good Role Model
- Be aware of how you discuss the pandemic and your own anxieties and frustrations in front of your kids. Children are sponges, and no matter how hard we try to shield our own feelings of fear, anxiety and depression from them, they pick up on everything. This isn’t necessarily bad, as long as we share our feelings with them in a constructive way.
According to the National Association of School Psychologists, “It is very important to remember that children look to adults for guidance on how to react to stressful events. (…) This is also a tremendous opportunity for adults to model for children problem-solving, flexibility, and compassion as we all work through adjusting daily schedules (…) and connecting and supporting friends and family members in new ways.”
Reach Out for Help
- Always reach out to your pediatrician with any questions or concerns you may have about your child’s physical and mental health.
- Find a children’s therapist for your child — every kid (and adult!) can benefit from having someone to talk to and acquiring tools and tricks to work through struggles and painful feelings and experiences.
For more guidance on how to support your children during this challenging time, check out this guide for helping kids’ manage Covid anxiety, as well as this helpful report from Child Trends entitled, Resources for Supporting Children’s Emotional Well-being during the COVID-19 Pandemic
If you think your child’s mental health may be suffering due to the pandemic, you’re not imagining it, and you’re definitely not alone. In fact, according to WebMD and a report conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “The COVID-19 pandemic is taking a toll on children because of disruptions to their everyday life, anxiety about illness and social isolation.”
Our children’s lives have been completely uprooted, and all the “normal” ways in which kids traditionally learn, gain independence, engage with peers and develop helpful coping mechanisms and overall life skills have wildly shifted (or completely disappeared) as well.
But (!!!), with our awareness and support, we can help our kids manage (and even thrive) during this very difficult time. According to this article in USA Today, “Experts underscore a child’s best buffer during the pandemic is a supportive parent.”
Parents, it is also incredibly important that you take good care of yourselves, too; you must put on your own oxygen mask before you can assist others. And remember, this is temporary. As I reminded my own daughter just last night, this too shall pass. I don’t know exactly when or how, but it will. In fact, we’re at the beginning of the end. And we will all be together (perhaps even hugging?) on the other side when it does.
Helpful Resources about Childhood Anxiety and Depression During Covid